Human rights activist, former Miss World Canada, singer and author Nazanin Afshin-Jam and wife of Defence Minister Peter MacKay spoke at the Leadership Dinner of the National Prayer Breakfast Apr. 30. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Beauty queen doubles as rights activist

  • May 2, 2012

OTTAWA - Human rights activist and former beauty queen Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay told hundreds of religious leaders she felt blessed to be able to stand at a podium and share her faith without reprisals.

“This is not the case in all parts of the world,” she said, noting that in her native Iran, “we would be facing persecution for gathering like this.”

Speaking at a dinner April 30 on the eve of the 47th annual National Prayer Breakfast, the recently married wife of Defence Minister Peter MacKay said if she were sharing her Christian faith in Iran, paramilitary police would drag her from the podium, beat her, torture her and sentence her to death.

The National Prayer Breakfast focussed on faith and freedom over three days of seminars and shared meals.

Afshin-Jam MacKay told the story of her family’s escape from Iran after the theocratic revolution that actively persecuted all religious minorities, any media that criticized the regime and women. Her father had been the manager of the Sheraton Hotel in Tehran and was arrested and tortured for allowing music, men and women to mingle and the sale of alcohol there. He had been doing what he had always done, she said, unaware the rules had changed.

Afshin-Jam MacKay arrived in Canada at age two, but always sensitive to the pain of others. This grew into a passion to help others, she said. She told her mother when she was in Grade 9 that she wanted to become a nun when she grew up.  

“It’s nice that you want to do that,” said her mother, who had converted to the Christian faith while living in Italy before the revolution, “but you don’t have to join a convent to help others.”

After studying political science and international relations at the University of British Columbia, Afshin-Jam MacKay became interested in children affected by war and the damage done by land mines. She realized she needed to reach more people and decided to enter the Miss World competition in order to build a larger platform for her human rights work. She won Miss World Canada in 2003 and was first runner-up for the Miss World pageant. She also began a singing career to increase her profile.

Then she heard the story of another Nazanin who at 17 faced a death sentence in Iran for stabbing one of three men who tried to rape her and her niece. The man later died. She learned that Nazanin, had the rape taken place, could have been charged with acts incompatible with chastity and had she been married, she could have been stoned for adultery.

Afshin-Jam MacKay began a worldwide campaign to save Nazanin, visiting world leaders, using social media and gathering 350,000 signatures on a petition. The international pressure was successful in gaining Nazanin a new trial. She was exonerated and freed. But Afshin-Jam McKay discovered another 160 children also facing execution, prompting her to found the Stop Child Executions organization.  

“International pressure can make a difference,” she said.

The work saving children from execution has been “an emotional roller coaster,” she said, including wrenching conversations with crying mothers.

“I prayed like I never prayed before,” she said.

Yet when she reached her lowest points, knowing there was nothing she could do, “I would pray and I’d see these little miracles happen or little angels appear and the exact thing I needed would appear.

“When we are doing God’s work and following our calling, He aids us along the way,” she said.  

At the National Prayer Breakfast May 1, Fr. Raymond de Souza, Catholic priest, columnist and editor of the new magazine Convivium, spoke on why politics needs religion and politicians need religion. (To read an abridged version of de Souza’s speech, see his column here.)

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